Shoe Man

by Tonya Liburd

Somewhere in downtown Toronto, a homeless black man had shoes whose soles were flapping. He refused to give them up, no matter what people said, no matter what people offered. They were the first things he ever bought in Canada, the shoes he wore to his wedding, so long ago. The wedding that was supposed to mark the beginning of a new life, a good life in Canada.

A good life… they were pretty young, he had a wife, he had a daughter, he had a job… then the illness reared its head and took over. And everything spiraled out of control. No medications would make his mind whole again; the fear and confusion from his wife, the fights. The guilt over his daughter witnessing it all. When his wife died instantly from the car accident while he got barely a scratch–fortunately their daughter wasn’t with them–it was the last thing he could take, and he remembered just everything conspiring to force him out the door and leave everything behind. Well, almost. He still had his shoes.

That was years ago.

Then one day a stranger pointed at his beloved wedding shoes and, smiling, said he had talking shoes. He paid this man no mind, having had to endure worse comments, or actions, from strangers. The homeless man didn’t question when the soles of his shoes started closing up of their own accord. But, then, around his bare ankles, with his ashy, dry mahogany skin, there appeared teeth. Suddenly fearful, he took them off.

“Hi, Henry,” said one shoe.

“Hello, Henry,” said the other.

“But wat is this. What the hell happen to mih shoes at-all? Now I have to walk around barefoot!”

“No, you can wear us!” they both chimed.

Henry gave them a wary side-eye.

“You bad shoes?” he asked. “You gon’ hurt me?”

“No, we’re your shoes,” said one. “We belong to you,” said the other.

The black leather on both shoes curved. Good Lord, they were smiling at him.

“All right, you two are okay. Y’all something else, yes,” he said, grinning.

He could wear them, they said, right? So Henry wore them. That day he walked around, panhandling near the Shopper’s Drug Mart on the east side of Yonge and College. When night came he went to a men’s hostel, and someone tried to steal his shoes; but they clamped their teeth tight, tight, around the thief’s ankles, and he woke up to a man screaming. That white man was not a fan of anyone that night; he woke everyone up. The shoes left the would-be thief with blistering teeth marks.

Henry’s shoes were on his team, and they weren’t leaving him anytime soon.

Henry didn’t bother staying in that rotten hostel after that; he slept where he could at night.

One night, he was lying on a park bench. He started crying.

“Why are you crying, Henry?” his shoes asked him.

“My wife,” he said, sniffling. “I… miss her.”

“It’s okay to miss your dead wife, Henry,” one shoe said.

“Yeah,” said the other.

Henry sat up. “Is not my fault; I used to have a job, I used to work, I have a daughter,” he said. “Is not my fault none of the medication they have don’t work on me.”

“A lot of people on the street used to be like you were, Henry,” said one shoe.

“What do you want, Henry?” the other asked him.

“I want to… sleep somewhere nice. Every day. I want to see my daughter. I want my daughter to say she love me.” He gesticulated. “If my wife was alive, she’d a tell mih daughter to mind her father, pay him respect. I never beat her, I was never cruel to her, I love her!”

“We can help you find a nice place to sleep every night,” they told him.

“How?”

“We can talk. We can sing for your supper. We can be there to speak for you when you can’t find the words, when your episodes hit. We can even massage your feet,” they said.

He eyed them skeptically. “In exchange for what? What you want?”

The shoes sighed. “In exchange for nothing,” they said in unison.

“We want to help,” one said.

“We want you to be happy,” the other said.

“Don’t you remember what that was like?” the first one continued.

“When people just did things for you out of the kindness of their hearts?” the other asked him.

Henry got a bit teary-eyed. “Yeah, yeah,” he said, wiping his eyes.

“Well, then!” the shoes chirped in unison.

He grinned. “Okay, then.”

From that day on they kept him company as he panhandled, entertaining pedestrians, talking to him when he was alone. He even talked to them about his years in Trinidad.

One day a young lady the homeless man knew was coming down the sidewalk at Yonge and Gerrard. Arms full of various wooden carved items, she looked straight ahead, probably headed down to the store near Dundas that took some of her creations on commission. She looked lost in thought. She stopped in mid-stride, and looked left and right when she heard two voices saying her name, then when Henry called her, she appeared to recognize his voice.

She looked down to the ground, having seemed to finally realize where the other voices were coming from. Her brown eyes grew wide.

“Yuh like the shoes, Keisha? They like you. They remember you. They know everything about my life.”

“Where you find them shoes?” Although she was Canadian born, she had Caribbean ancestry, and could switch to patois.

“Is my ol’ shoes.”

“Dem bus’-up shoes you does have all the time?”

“Yes!”

“What happened to them?!”

“Some stranger point at them and say how they is talking shoes. Yuh know how people does say when yuh soles flapping yuh shoes talkin’? Only they really started to talk after dat.”

“But wat is dis…”

He pointed at the shoes. “They talkin’ an’ singin’ for mih supper.” He smiled. Then he leaned in conspiratorially. “Ah make a hundred dollars today,” he said.

“A hundred dollars?”

“Ehe!”

“Yuh doin’ better than me today. Here, take a flower.” She placed a wooden flower carving next to his shoes. “That’s for your good luck. Things seem to be looking up for both of us these days.”

“Yes, yes.”

They shared a comfortable, thoughtful silence.

“But eh-eh, Henry, you smell like you wash! But what is this at-all?” she smiled, fisting his arm good-naturedly.

“Well, ah goin’ home, now.”

“Oho? Where? Satan House?”

He smiled, thinking of what had happened with his shoes the last time he was at Seaton House, which was the proper name for the men’s hostel.

“Yes, but not for long.”

“Oh good, thank God! Ah glad!”

“Good bye, Keisha,” said one shoe.

“Thanks for the flower,” said the other.

“Good bye…!” they sang together to her, causing passers-by to do double takes, before he put them on, and they wouldn’t be able to talk.

Keisha giggled.

As he made his way to the men’s hostel, Henry started to think the good luck with his shoes was a sign. Maybe now, this time, it wouldn’t be so hard to move out of the streets… see his grown daughter, who had disowned him… his grandchildren…

So, somewhere in downtown Toronto, Henry, the man with the talking shoes, began to believe he could have a future.

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